By Kathleen Leinweber, Public Health in South Africa, Spring 2012
It sits nestled in a sea of gold, platinum and silver. It glints, shines, teases and tantalizes as the light strikes its many faces, splaying its radiating iridescence. It is a sign of power, wealth, and love, yet is derived from generations of hard, physical labor. It is quite fascinating that such a tiny creature undergoes such an intricate removal and purification before it fulfills its characteristic role as a token of affection.
It is a diamond.
I had the privilege of visiting Cullinan Diamond mine while in Johannesburg, taking both a tour of the surface and an underground tour. Donned in full body suit, wool socks, hard hat with head lamp and boots that could easily obliterate an entire colony of cockroaches, we descended about 763 meters into the damp earth. It was both an interesting and thrilling experience to see the entire mining community and feel what it is like so far underground. This mine is home to the largest rough gem-quality diamond ever found at 3,106.75 carats! To put it into perspective, the average engagement ring boasts a 1.18 carat diamond, so that’s like 2,632 engagement rings!
And while the tour of the mine was really interesting, it is the entire industry and generations that have risked their lives that truly inspired me. Just seeing all the dangers, safety precautions and hearing about mining incidents (even though most accidents are in coal mines, not diamond) makes me really appreciate the work that these miners do. Not only is the work often dangerous, but the idea of working a 9-5 job so far underground without sunlight and constantly breathing essentially artificial air doesn’t sound like the most appealing lifestyle. These men and women come from generations of miners, which gives this entire industry such a rich historical depth (no pun intended).
But of course, nothing would interest me this much if it didn’t have a scientific or medical relevance. And it does. The mining industry has provided quite possibly hundreds of thousands of jobs to South Africans. Historically, men would travel from their rural homes to the urban cities to work in the mines. They spent days, even weeks, away from home and often found solace in sex workers and alcohol. During apartheid times, many miners were relocated from their families into hostels where they were provided sex workers and alcohol as a sort of compensation for their cooperation. They would eventually return home to their wives and unknowingly transmit diseases. Basically, this migratory lifestyle fueled the spread of communicable diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. It is just one of the many reasons that South Africa has such a high infection rate of HIV/AIDS!
My experience in the diamond mine has made me appreciate hard work, especially in such rough, dangerous conditions. It has made me think about the health implications on the miners and their families, and as I gaze down at my tiny diamonds in my high school graduation gift, I can forever understand the blood, sweat and tears that went into making such a beautiful gem.